In 1929, Chesterton felt the need to write a defense of what he called ‘The Thing’ – why he became a Catholic. ‘The Thing’ then is a collection of essays where Chesterton defends his conversion to…a Catholic audience! But why? As The American Chesterton Society president, Dale Ahlquist ,observes in his lecture on ‘The Thing‘:
The essays in this collection were originally written for Catholic publications and are somewhat different from his other journalism because here Chesterton is writing for a specifically Catholic audience. And yet his vigorous defense of the Catholic faith seems to invite all comers.
To understand Chesterton as completely as we can, we must try to wrap our minds around this idea. He was thinking all these aspects of life, history, religion – well, just about everything – through towards what for him became an ineluctable conclusion.
There are a number of essays contained in ‘The Thing’. ‘The Drift From Domesticity’ is Chesterton’s examination of reform in light of the family household and what forces were beginning to destroy it even in his day and why the Catholic faith had shown a history of defending the family against destruction.
“IN the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them,
there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably
be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution
or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected
across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it
and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.”
To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer:
“If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away.
Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you
do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense.
The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists
who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put
there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street.
Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good
thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was,
we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.
It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole
aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings
like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious.
There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming
that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so,
we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease.
But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social
institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution.
If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve,
he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that
they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes
which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing
as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path,
it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.
We might even say that he is seeing things in a nightmare.
This principle applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well
as true institutions, to convention as well as to conviction.
It was exactly the sort of person, like Joan of Arc, who did know
why women wore skirts, who was most justified in not wearing one;
it was exactly the sort of person, like St. Francis, who did
sympathise with the feast and the fireside, who was most entitled
to become a beggar on the open road. And when, in the general
emancipation of modern society, the Duchess says she does not see
why she shouldn’t play leapfrog, or the Dean declares that he sees
no valid canonical reason why he should not stand on his head,
we may say to these persons with patient benevolence:
“Defer, therefore, the operation you contemplate until you have realised
by ripe reflection what principle or prejudice you are violating.
Then play leapfrog and stand on your head and the Lord be with you.”
Among the traditions that are being thus attacked, not intelligently
but most unintelligently, is the fundamental human creation called
the Household or the Home. That is a typical thing which men attack,
not because they can see through it, but because they cannot see it
at all. They beat at it blindly, in a fashion entirely haphazard
and opportunist; and many of them would pull it down without
even pausing to ask why it was ever put up. It is true that only
a few of them would have avowed this object in so many words.
That only proves how very blind and blundering they are.
But they have fallen into a habit of mere drift and gradual
detachment from family life; something that is often merely
accidental and devoid of any definite theory at all.
But though it is accidental it is none the less anarchical.
And it is all the more anarchical for not being anarchist.
It seems to be largely founded on individual irritation;
an irritation which varies with the individual. We are merely
told that in this or that case a particular temperament was
tormented by a particular environment; but nobody even explained
how the evil arose, let alone whether the evil is really escaped.
We are told that in this or that family Grandmamma talked a great
deal of nonsense, which God knows is true; or that it is very
difficult to have intimate intellectual relations with Uncle Gregory
without telling him he is a fool, which is indeed the case.
But nobody seriously considers the remedy, or even the malady;
or whether the existing individualistic dissolution is a remedy at all.
Much of this business began with the influence of Ibsen, a very powerful
dramatist and an exceedingly feeble philosopher. I suppose that Nora
of THE DOLL’S HOUSE was intended to be an inconsequent person;
but certainly her most inconsequent action was her last.
She complained that she was not yet fit to look after children,
and then proceeded to get as far as possible from the children,
that she might study them more closely.
There is one simple test and type of this neglect of scientific
thinking and the sense of a social rule; the neglect which has
now left us with nothing but a welter of exceptions. I have read
hundreds and thousands of times, in all the novels and newspapers
of our epoch, certain phrases about the just right of the young
to liberty, about the unjust claim of the elders to control,
about the conception that all souls must be free or all citizens equal,
about the absurdity of authority or the degradation of obedience.
I am not arguing those matters directly at the moment.
But what strikes me as astounding, in a logical sense, is that not
one of these myriad novelists and newspaper-men ever seems to think
of asking the next and most obvious question. It never seems to
occur to them to enquire what becomes of the opposite obligation.
If the child is free from the first to disregard the parent,
why is not the parent free from the first to disregard the child?
If Mr. Jones, Senior, and Mr. Jones, Junior, are only two free
and equal citizens, why should one citizen sponge on another citizen
for the first fifteen years of his life? Why should the elder
Mr. Jones be expected to feed, clothe and shelter out of his own
pocket another person who is entirely free of any obligations to him?
If the bright young thing cannot be asked to tolerate her grandmother,
who has become something of a bore, why should the grandmother
or the mother have tolerated the bright young thing at a period
of her life when she was by no means bright? Why did they
laboriously look after her at a time when her contributions to the
conversation were seldom epigrammatic and not often intelligible?
Why should Jones Senior stand drinks and free meals to anybody
so unpleasant as Jones Junior, especially in the immature phases
of his existence? Why should he not throw the baby out of the window;
or at any rate, kick the boy out of doors? It is obvious that we
are dealing with a real relation, which may be equality, but is
certainly not similarity.
Some social reformers try to evade this difficulty, I know,
by some vague notions about the State or an abstraction called
Education eliminating the parental function. But this,
like many notions of solid scientific persons, is a wild illusion
of the nature of mere moonshine. It is based on that strange
new superstition, the idea of infinite resources of organisation.
It is as if officials grew like grass or bred like rabbits.
There is supposed to be an endless supply of salaried persons,
and of salaries for them; and they are to undertake all that human
beings naturally do for themselves; including the care of children.
But men cannot live by taking in each other’s baby-linen. They cannot
provide a tutor for each citizen; who is to tutor the tutors?
Men cannot be educated by machinery; and though there might be
a Robot bricklayer or scavenger, there will never be a Robot
schoolmaster or governess. The actual effect of this theory
is that one harassed person has to look after a hundred children,
instead of one normal person looking after a normal number of them.
Normally that normal person is urged by a natural force, which costs
nothing and does not require a salary; the force of natural
affection for his young, which exists even among the animals.
If you cut off that natural force, and substitute a paid bureaucracy,
you are like a fool who should pay men to turn the wheel of his mill,
because he refused to use wind or water which he could get for nothing.
You are like a lunatic who should carefully water his garden with
a watering-can, while holding up an umbrella to keep off the rain.
It is now necessary to recite these truisms; for only by doing
so can we begin to get a glimpse of that REASON for the existence
of the family, which I began this essay by demanding.
They were all familiar to our fathers, who believed in the links
of kinship and also in the links of logic. To-day our logic consists
mostly of missing links; and our family largely of absent members.
But, anyhow, this is the right end at which to begin any such enquiry;
and not at the tail-end or the fag-end of some private muddle,
by which Dick has become discontented or Susan has gone off on her own.
If Dick or Susan wish to destroy the family because they
do not see the use of it, I say as I said in the beginning;
if they do not see the use of it, they had much better preserve it.
They have no business even to think of destroying it until they
have seen the use of it.
But it has other uses, besides the obvious fact that it means
a necessary social work being done for love when it cannot be done
for money; and (one might almost dare to hint) presumably to be
repaid with love since it is never repaid in money. On that simple
side of the matter the general situation is easy to record.
The existing and general system of society, subject in our own age
and industrial culture to very gross abuses and painful problems,
is nevertheless a normal one. It is the idea that the commonwealth is
made up of a number of small kingdoms, of which a man and a woman become
the king and queen and in which they exercise a reasonable authority,
subject to the common sense of the commonwealth, until those under their
care grow up to found similar kingdoms and exercise similar authority.
This is the social structure of mankind, far older than all
its records and more universal than any of its religions;
and all attempts to alter it are mere talk and tomfoolery.
But the other advantage of the small group is now not so much neglected
as simply not realised. Here again we have some extraordinary
delusions spread all over the literature and journalism of our time.
Those delusions now exist in such a degree that we may say,
for all practical purposes, that when a thing has been stated
about a thousand times as obviously true, it is almost certain to be
obviously false. One such statement may be specially noted here.
There is undoubtedly something to be said against domesticity
and in favour of the general drift towards life in hotels, clubs,
colleges, communal settlements and the rest; or for a social life
organised on the plan of the great commercial systems of our time.
But the truly extraordinary suggestion is often made that this
escape from the home is an escape into greater freedom.
The change is actually offered as favourable to liberty.
To anybody who can think, of course, it is exactly the opposite.
The domestic division of human society is not perfect, being human.
It does not achieve complete liberty; a thing somewhat difficult
to do or even to define. But it is a mere matter of arithmetic
that it puts a larger number of people in supreme control
of something, and able to shape it to their personal liking,
than do the vast organisations that rule society outside;
whether those systems are legal or commercial or even merely social.
Even if we were only considering the parents, it is plain that
there are more parents than there are policemen or politicians
or heads of big businesses or proprietors of hotels.
As I shall suggest in a moment, the argument actually applies
indirectly to the children as well as directly to the parents.
But the main point is that the world OUTSIDE the home is now under a
rigid discipline and routine and it is only inside the home that there
is really a place for individuality and liberty. Anyone stepping
out of the front-door is obliged to step into a procession, all going
the same way and to a great extent even obliged to wear the same uniform.
Business, especially big business, is now organised like an army.
It is, as some would say, a sort of mild militarism without bloodshed;
as I should say, a militarism without the military virtues.
But anyhow, it is obvious that a hundred clerks in a bank or a hundred
waitresses in a teashop are more regimented and under rule than
the same individuals when each has gone back to his or her own dwelling
or lodging, hung with his or her favourite pictures or fragrant with
his or her favourite cheap cigarettes. But this, which is so obvious
in the commercial case, is no less true even in the social case.
In practice, the pursuit of pleasure is merely the pursuit of fashion.
The pursuit of fashion is merely the pursuit of convention;
only that it happens to be a new convention. The jazz dances,
the joy rides, the big pleasure parties and hotel entertainments,
do not make any more provision for a REALLY independent taste than
did any of the fashions of the past. If a wealthy young lady wants
to do what all the other wealthy young ladies are doing, she will
find it great fun, simply because youth is fun and society is fun.
She will enjoy being modern exactly as her Victorian grandmother
enjoyed being Victorian. And quite right too; but it is the enjoyment
of convention, not the enjoyment of liberty. It is perfectly healthy
for all young people of all historic periods to herd together,
to a reasonable extent, and enthusiastically copy each other.
But in that there is nothing particularly fresh and certainly
nothing particularly free. The girl who likes shaving her head
and powdering her nose and wearing short skirts will find the world
organised for her and will march happily with the procession.
But a girl who happened to like having her hair down to her heels
or loading herself with barbaric gauds and trailing garments or
(most awful of all) leaving her nose in its natural state–
she will still be well advised to do these things on her own premises.
If the Duchess does want to play leap frog, she must not start suddenly
leaping in the manner of a frog across the ballroom of the Babylon Hotel,
when it is crowded with the fifty best couples professionally
practising the very latest dance, for the instruction of society.
The Duchess will find it easier to practise leap frog to the admiration of
her intimate friends in the old oak-panelled hall of Fitzdragon Castle.
If the Dean must stand on his head, he will do it with more ease
and grace in the calm atmosphere of the Deanery than by attempting
to interrupt the programme of some social entertainment already
organised for philanthropic purposes.
If there is this impersonal routine in commercial and even in
social things, it goes without saying that it exists and always
must exist in political and legal things. For instance,
the punishments of the State must be sweeping generalisations.
It is only the punishments of the home that can possibly be adapted
to the individual case; because it is only there that the judge can
know anything of the individual. If Tommy takes a silver thimble
out of a work-basket, his mother may act very differently according
as she knows that he did it for fun or for spite or to sell to somebody,
or to get somebody into trouble. But if Tomkins takes a silver
thimble out of a shop, the law not only can but must punish him
according to the rule made for all shoplifters or stealers of silver.
It is only the domestic discipline that can show any sympathy
or especially any humour. I do not say that the family always
does do this; but I say that the State never ought to attempt it.
So that even if we consider the parents alone as independent princes,
and the children merely as subjects, the relative freedom of the family
can and often does work to the advantage of those subjects.
But so long as the children are children, they will always be the subjects
of somebody. The question is whether they are to be distributed naturally
under their natural princes, as the old phrase went, who normally
feel for them what nobody else will feel, a natural affection.
It seems to me clear that this normal distribution gives the largest
amount of liberty to the largest number of people.
My complaint of the anti-domestic drift is that it is unintelligent.
People do not know what they are doing; because they do not know what they
are undoing. There are a multitude of modern manifestations, from the
largest to the smallest, ranging from a divorce to a picnic party.
But each is a separate escape or evasion; and especially an evasion
of the point at issue. People ought to decide in a philosophical
fashion whether they desire the traditional social order or not;
or if there is any particular alternative to be desired.
As it is they treat the public question merely as a mess or medley
of private questions. Even in being anti-domestic they are much
too domestic in their test of domesticity. Each family considers
only its own case and the result is merely narrow and negative.
Each case is an exception to a rule that does not exist. The family,
especially in the modern state, stands in need of considerable
correction and reconstruction; most things do in the modern state.
But the family mansion should be preserved or destroyed or rebuilt;
it should not be allowed to fall to pieces brick by brick because
nobody has any historic sense of the object of bricklaying.
For instance, the architects of the restoration should rebuild the house
with wide and easily opened doors, for the practice of the ancient
virtue of hospitality. In other words, private property should be
distributed with sufficiently decent equality to allow of a margin
for festive intercourse. But the hospitality of a house will always
be different from the hospitality of a hotel. And it will be different
in being more individual, more independent, more interesting than
the hospitality of a hotel. It is perfectly right that the young
Browns and the young Robinsons should meet and mix and dance and make
asses of themselves, according to the design of their Creator.
But there will always be some difference between the Browns
entertaining the Robinsons and the Robinsons entertaining the Browns.
And it will be a difference to the advantage of variety, of personality,
of the potentialities of the mind of man; or, in other words,
of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” – from The Thing, 1929